The Top 10 Greatest Title Reigns in UFC History

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistMarch 8, 2018

The Top 10 Greatest Title Reigns in UFC History

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    Having consistent success in the UFC is tough. Becoming a champion is incredibly difficult. But holding on to the title for any length of time? That's another thing entirely.

    Over the last few years, UFC fans have seen champions come and go at a clip never before seen in the promotion's history. The creation of new divisions and an increased willingness to strip titles, coupled with the ever-rising tide of talent, has seen an almost constant turnover at the top of divisions.

    But it wasn't always that way!

    With that in mind, it's worth taking a look back on the kings and queens that used to rule their divisions with an iron fist.

    Bleacher Report has poured over fight footage and weighed a number of factors including length, strength of competition, method of victory and memorable moments to pinpoint the 10 greatest championship reigns in UFC history.

    So who makes the cut? Read on to find out.

10. Tito Ortiz

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    Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    Division: Light Heavyweight 
    Date: April 14, 2000, to November 22, 2002
    No. of Defenses: 5
    Length: 1,260 Days

    What Made it Great?

    Frank Shamrock was a conqueror in 1999. The Legend had essentially run roughshod over the 205-pound division for two years and cemented his place as one of the company's top stars and greatest fighters. He had brought a stability to the main event scene and demonstrated a skill set that was remarkably advanced for its time.

    And then he was gone! Citing a lack of competition, Shamrock retired (only to return in Japan a year later) and left the UFC to pick up the pieces.

    The man with the unenviable task of replacing Shamrock was his last opponent in the UFC, Tito Ortiz. Ortiz and Shamrock faced off at UFC 22 in one of the greatest fights in MMA history, and while Shamrock ultimately won the contest, Ortiz's toughness and ability to manufacture beef with opponents made him the company's most easy-to-promote entity.

    He won the vacant title by defeating Wanderlei Silva at UFC 25 and, from there, he did more than enough to legitimize his belt by beginning his reign with three consecutive first-round finishes over Yuki Kondo, Evan Tanner and Elvis Sinosic.

    During this time, a series of major shakeups occurred across the western MMA world with the introduction of the Unified Rules of MMA and Zuffa's acquisition of the UFC. As the visibility of the sport grew, so did Ortiz's role as champion, with his headlining the UFC's return to cable pay-per-view at UFC 33 and following that up with his legendary grudge match with Ken Shamrock. 

    Ortiz's reign would ultimately end in ugly fashion a year later, returning from injury to a sound beating from Randy Couture. 

    His success as champion and his prominent role in the early days of Zuffa's UFC, however, make him one of the most successful and most important title holders in the promotion's history.  

9. Matt Hughes

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    Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Division: Welterweight
    Date: November 2, 2001, to January 31, 2004
    No. of Defenses: 5
    Length: 820 Days

    What Made it Great?

    There are a lot of good fighters out there whose careers are defined by one highlight: Edson Barboza's spin kick on Terry Etim, Holly Holm's knockout of Ronda Rousey, the list goes on.

    Matt Hughes easily could have been among that lot, courtesy of his memorable slam knockout of Carlos Newton in 2001. And heck, just look back on it! A fighter would have to do something pretty special to not have their career defined by that!

    Well, unlike other one-hit-wonders from across UFC history, Hughes achieved enough accolades and enjoyed enough in-cage success to make that slam just one chapter in the book of his career.

    After capturing the belt, Hughes defended it a whopping five times, four of which came via stoppage. Included on his resume during this time were the likes of Shooto champion Hayato Sakurai, future lightweight champion Sean Sherk and future archrival Frank Trigg.

    While many of his most beloved bouts—particularly his rematch with Trigg and his superfight with Royce Gracie—didn't come until his second reign as champion, his first run with the belt was objectively better, and it's what cements him as one of the best fighters of his era.

8. Chuck Liddell

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    Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Division: Light Heavyweight 
    Date: April 16, 2005, to May 26, 2007
    No. of Defenses: 4
    Length: 770 Days

    What Made it Great?

    Combat sports are built on rivalries, and two of MMA's greatest were realized during Chuck Liddell's reign as UFC light heavyweight champion.

    Liddell first won the title in 2005, avenging his previous loss to Randy Couture with an impressive knockout at UFC 52 in the first-ever The Ultimate Fighter coaches' fight. The rubber match came less than a year later but ultimately ended the same, with Liddell smashing Couture.

    From there, he set his sights on another old foe; Tito Ortiz. The two faced off in 2004 in what was, at the time, the most hotly anticipated bout in UFC history, and the rematch would prove to be considerably bigger.

    Their rivalry stewed for more than two years as Liddell cemented his place as one of the greatest champions in UFC history, while Ortiz's blood feud with Ken Shamrock transformed him into possibly the sport's biggest star.

    When they faced off in 2006, it was by far the biggest fight in promotional history, netting over one million pay-per-view buys and drawing a gate of well over $5 million, with Liddell winning via TKO.

    Oh, and sandwiched between those fights? Two more stoppage wins over Renato "Babalu" Sobral and Jeremy Horn.

    With stoppage victories over a pair of hall of famers, Liddell's reign likely would have made it on to this list on its own merits. The fact it helped ignite the UFC's transformation from a niche curiosity to the company it is today, however, helps its case even more.

7. Jose Aldo

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    Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Division: Featherweight
    Date: November 20, 2010, to December 12, 2015
    No. of Defenses: 7
    Length: 1,848 Days

    What Made it Great?

    There is no better gauge of how long someone has been watching MMA than asking what they think of former featherweight champion Jose Aldo.

    To those that were around before the rise of Conor McGregor, he was MMA's Tony Gwynn; consistent year-over-year to an eerie degree. To those that came after? He was the sport's Bill Buckner; an athlete whose career is ultimately defined by a single gaffe under the spotlight.

    While there's no question that, unfortunately, his 13-second loss to McGregor was the most-watched moment of his career it doesn't necessarily trump everything that came before it.

    Many were excited when Aldo first joined the UFC in 2010. His run in WEC, the UFC's sister promotion at the time, was utterly savage, highlighted by six straight knockout wins and his demolition of Urijah Faber in the company's first-ever pay-per-view event.

    Following the UFC-WEC merger, Aldo was awarded the first UFC featherweight belt on November 20, 2010. 

    Finishes didn't come as easily as the level of competition went up, but he was no less dominant, as his stiff jab, devastating leg kicks and bulletproof takedown defense carried him to convincing win after convincing win.

    Yes, the single most memorable moment of his title reign is McGregor's left hand landing in the opening seconds of their 2015 bout. Still, the man ruled his division with an iron fist for six years. There's no way to dismiss that.

6. Ronda Rousey

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Division: Women's Bantamweight
    Date: December 6, 2012, to November 14, 2015
    No. of Defenses: 6
    Length: 1,074 Days

    What Made it Great?

    It's easy to play the hindsight game with Ronda Rousey's title reign and, on some level, that's justified. Ultimately though, there's no question that Rousey's time as champion was unlike anything seen before and unlike anything fans will ever see again.

    From being awarded the belt by Dana White on December 6, 2012, to her first UFC defeat on November 14, 2015, Rousey wasn't just a fighter. She was an assassin. She didn't beat people up; she quickly, cleanly finished them with a consistency that no other fighter in any division or any era has come close to.

    After cementing her place as UFC champion by beating Liz Carmouche and building her star as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter, Rousey broke off five consecutive title defenses that lasted a combined three minutes and eight seconds. The GIF-friendly finishes resonated far outside the often-insular confines of the sport and turned Rousey into MMA's first true crossover celebrity.

    Things would collapse from there, with her loss to Holly Holm at UFC 193, less-than-graceful handling of the fallout and ugly return opposite Amanda Nunes. Still, anyone that witnessed her time at the top knows that her reign was one-of-a-kind and more than deserving of this spot.

5. Frank Shamrock

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Division: Light Heavyweight
    Date: December 21, 1997, to November 24, 1999
    No. of Defenses: 4
    Length: 703 Days 

    What Made it Great?

    The late 1990s were a time of major transition for the UFC, both in and out of the cage. The promotion's first stars, Ken Shamrock and Gracie, were both gone and the company needed a new star to hang its hat on.

    Meanwhile, the days of the backyard brawlers and single-style specialists were quickly closing as fighters like Vitor Belfort, Mark Coleman and Don Frye began transforming the sport into what it is today.

    The UFC had a specific role that had to be filled. It needed someone that was established well enough to win and far enough ahead of the curve to hold on to the title for a good stretch.

    The person that filled that role, of course, was Frank Shamrock.

    Brought into the UFC following a solid run in Pancrase, he won the title by defeating Kevin Jackson in his Octagon debut. From there, he defended it four times and established himself as the greatest all-around fighter of the era by toppling challengers in different ways, demonstrating solid skills in wrestling, submissions, ground-and-pound and striking.

    His reign is on the shorter end of this list, lasting just under two years, but Shamrock's time on top was ultimately as impressive as it was important.

4. Demetrious Johnson

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Division: Flyweight
    Date: September 22, 2012, to Present
    No. of Defenses: 11
    Length: Ongoing

    What Made it Great?

    Demetrious Johnson is the lone current champion on this list, but his legacy is ultimately ironclad at this point.

    For a brief while, it didn't seem like this would be the case. Johnson's time as a flyweight began in unceremonious fashion when he fought to a draw opposite Ian McCall, and his reign as champion seemed doomed to sputter out early, as he narrowly edged out Joseph Benavidez to claim the title and then scored a controversial decision-win over John Dodson.

    Things took a sharp left turn in 2013, though, when he turned into an absolute killer almost overnight, dissecting John Moraga and punching Benavidez's face clean off his body when they rematched at UFC on Fox 9.

    From there, he was out of control for anyone in the flyweight division, with each win becoming more dominant than the last. 

    As of writing, he has a whopping 11 defenses to his name. There are a few tough contenders lined up for Johnson right now, including a white-hot Henry Cejudo and maybe even bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw. 

3. Anderson Silva

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    Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Division: Middleweight
    Date: October 14, 2006, to July 6, 2013
    No. of Defenses: 10
    Length: 2,457 Days

    What Made it Great?

    It’s easy to get caught up on the numerous records Anderson Silva broke as UFC middleweight champion. Ten title defenses, 16 consecutive UFC wins, 2,457 days as champion...even among the other greats on this list, those numbers stand out.

    Quantitatively, he’s among the best there is, and qualitatively? He’s even better.

    While many other reigns on this list are defined by robotic efficiency and an air of invincibility, Silva’s was defined by the fact that he proved to be human time and again but won anyway.

    He had a distinct lack of urgency in the cage. His Achilles' heel (questionable takedown defense) was revealed early on in his UFC career. His propensity for taunting opponents and dropping his hands made him feel vulnerable, even in his own wheelhouse.

    Every single time it seemed that the Spider was about to drop his title, though, he managed to steal the win back from his opponent.

    All that said, nobody who watched him live would have said he looked weak as champion. He posted some of the greatest highlights in UFC history, rearranging Rich Franklin’s face, stunning Vitor Belfort with an at-the-time rare front kick and dancing circles around Forrest Griffin (albeit in a light heavyweight fight). Time and again, Silva proved himself to be a peerless talent in the cage both in terms of pure technical skills and his flare for the dramatic.

    The uncertainty going into a Silva fight combined with the awe coming out of it gave Silva's reign a unique, memorable feel. Add to that how he managed to maintain that balancing act for a whopping 2,457 days and you have one of the greatest of all time.

2. Jon Jones

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    Division: Light Heavyweight
    Date: March 19, 2011, to April 28, 2015
    No. of Defenses: 8
    Length: 1,501 Days

    What Made it Great?

    Jon Jones has been in constant trouble for three years now...and still, it's hard to make a case against him when it comes to discussing the greatest fighters of all time, courtesy of his crushing grip over the light heavyweight division.

    Right from the get-go, it was obvious Jones was a special sort of talent, and as he effortlessly cut his way through a field of light heavyweight veterans, it was equally obvious that he would one day become champion.

    His time came in 2011, when he was given a short-notice opportunity against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, and he toppled the Brazilian with little trouble.

    What happened from there was essentially the final scene of The Godfather, with Jones solidifying his place at the top by systematically taking out every other former champion that was relevant at that point.

    Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Lyoto Machida. Rashad Evans. Belfort. One by one, each was defeated in convincing fashion, and from there? The new challengers came and, for the most part, were defeated in similar fashion.

    Jones' reign ultimately came to a dubious end in 2015, when he was stripped of the belt following a hit-and-run incident. Still, Bones' shadow looms over the division, and his return remains inevitable.

1. Georges St-Pierre

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    Division: Welterweight
    Date: April 19, 2008, to December 13, 2013
    No. of Defenses: 9
    Length: 2,064 Days

    What Made it Great?

    While many at the time panned Georges St-Pierre's reign as welterweight king as "boring," the Canadian legend is arguably the single most dominant champion in all of UFC history. 

    That may sound like generic praise, as most of the champions on this list have reigns that fit that bill, but St-Pierre's second run with the belt stands out from almost anyone else's.

    After reclaiming the title by scoring a TKO victory over Matt Serra, GSP kicked off his reign with five consecutive wins where he didn't lose a single round. That streak was broken by Jake Shields at UFC 129, but he got back on the horse soon after, pitching near-shutouts against Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz.

    Just as impressively, during that time St-Pierre developed at an amazing pace and simultaneously grew into one of the sports' best wrestlers and best boxers despite coming from a background of karate and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

    Ultimately, St-Pierre only lost the title when he handed it back to the UFC, taking a lengthy hiatus from the sport after notching his ninth title defense in 2013. It will be interesting to see if he tries to reclaim it later this year.